When I was little, and on a trip to visit the Accidental grandparents, I remember being taken to London Zoo. It felt so huge I thought we'd never see everything. Animals prowled enclosures that looked lush and spacious; they could have been at home in their savannas for all I knew about zoological husbandry and habitats. I remember the worry of not seeing it ALL, the smell of the reptile house and the desperation about not being able to see the penguins properly.
This summer I happened to be walking through Regents Park, past the back of the zoo, and encountering a high wire fence around a dirt enclosure, I paused with my Accidental companion for a heated debate about the "nocturnal-ness" of an okapi. He said they came out at night, I disagreed. (In truth, I had no idea about an okapi's daily routine, and to be honest I was not 100% sure I could even pick one out of an animal line-up. But I would defend my argument to the death.)
Here is what an okapi looks like for those who need a memory-jog - bigger than you were thinking eh?
(Courtesy of Kol Tregaskes)
To settle the matter once and for all I booked us both tickets to the final London Zoo Lates event in August. And yes, I know that seems like forever ago with ice and snow on the ground but cast your minds back if you can...imagine the balmy evenings, how late it was before it got dark, remember when it was nice to do things after work rather than dash home enveloped in a million layers of clothing. Got it?
Ok, so one lovely warm evening after work I took my Accidental, and argumentative, companion down to hang out with the animals. We saw gorillas and monkeys, hiding from the hoards of evening visitors beneath plastic sheeting and leaping about respectively; I idly contemplated stealing one of the smaller ones flying from tree to tree above our heads which would have fit perfectly in my handbag. But I feared for my handbag. Taking a break from primates, we sipped Pimms and watched the penguins (from a perfect vantage point my 9 year old self would have killed for), who were hungrily awaiting their supper. A strange conversation between three women struck up behind us, as one relayed her last penguin encounter which involved some smelly fish, a small child and Gail Porter. After about 3 minutes I realised my Accidental companion, who had gone strangely silent, was shaking with suppressed giggles, and we quickly removed ourselves in search of further refreshment.
In the original penguin pool in the centre of the zoo no one flapped or waddled; a stunning feat of architecture built to house birds who hated living there - the concrete slopes hurt their feet apparently. Across from the empty pen a vast enclosure housed several solemn lions, pacing and watching, waiting wistfully for a small child to stick a juicy arm into their lair. Before bringing myself down with thoughts of caged, depressed wild animals, we went to cheer ourselves up with some friendly llamas, some misplaced-looking donkeys, and a bathing hippo. We played "Spot the Lizard" in the dark humidity of the reptile house (still as malodorous as I recalled) - my experience of forest-life in Madagascar giving me an easy edge - until my companion begged for daylight and fresh air, and a chance to settle the okapi debate once and for all.
By the time we got to their enclosure the okapis, a mother and her young offspring with matching stripey stockings, were receiving their nighttime feed and being shut up for the night. Not nocturnal then - case closed. It felt rude watching them as they readied themselves for bed, so we stepped out and left them to it. We paused before three lanky giraffes who cantered a farewell lap around their paddock to the delight of their audience. Their bandy-legged gait seemed to have an slow motion filter, creating an effect similar to movement seen through a strobe light, which experienced outside of a nightclub makes one feel slightly drunk and dizzy. As the tall doors closed behind the tall creatures we felt we too might be ready for a late night feed, so we left the animals to their beds and went in search of a nice bucket of water and a bale of hay.